LAURENCE BERNS (1928-2011) [March 7, 2011]

George Anastaplo

How often are we to die before we go quite off this

stage? In every friend we lose a part of ourselves

and the best part.

-Alexander Pope (1732)


It happens that an old friend is being buried at this moment in Annapolis, Maryland—but family circumstances have kept me here in Chicago. I have been assured, by people there, that there would be a memorial service later this year at St. John’s College for this beloved member of its faculty, a service that I can hope I will be able to attend.

It is fitting that remarks appropriate for both a funeral service and a memorial gathering (as well as for our seminar) should be made here this morning, especially since we are, in this year’s seminar, studying something dear to Laurence Berns’s heart, Classical drama—and studying it in a way that he would have found usefully challenging. Early in our year-long seminar you were supplied his instructive 1964 essay on Aristotle’s Poetics. It is also appropriate that this seminar should be offered by the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults here at the University of Chicago. For it was in the Basic Program that Mr. Berns began his teaching career  more than a half-century ago. The University of Chicago was very much part of his life, just as St. John’s College at Annapolis has been.

And this seminar is the place where he last appeared at the University of Chicago. He was here in November 2009 for a talk, on Plato’s Meno, in the Basic Program Works of the Mind Lecture Series. The following morning he joined our year-long seminar on the Bible.


Here, in Chicago, the first part of the “Laurence Berns Memorial Service” has preceded today’s “Funeral Service.” I learned of my friend’s unexpected death (by a massive heart attack) on my way to Orchestra Hall last Friday afternoon. I could (as I tried to get used to the idea of this death) regard the performance, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as a memorial to him.

I was encouraged to do so by remarks made to the audience by the conductor on that occasion. The program consisted of pieces by Richard Wagner, Franco Donatoni, and Anton Bruckner. The conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, told us that there were grim associations with these pieces—but, he insisted, they were still life-affirming. The scholar who spoke to the pre-Concert audience that day had told us that the first piece had been appropriated by the Nazis in the 1930’s. The second piece was performed for the first time by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on this program—and I could almost hear Larry Berns suggest that it would be some time before it would be played again in that hall. As for the third piece:     I could wonder whether it would ever end.

Thus, I had plenty of time, at Orchestra Hall, to recall my old friend. We had  talked, by telephone, a few days before, at which time he expressed concern about his wife’s health and how that might affect his ability to join us at a May conference in North Carolina. He was concerned as well about the reading list for that conference, but I assured him that whatever it was he would be able to handle it. I also assured him that he could stay with us when he came to Chicago for an April conference at which he was to speak on Leo Strauss as a teacher.

News of Laurence Berns’s death elicited the general regret that a Festschrift volume in his honor, which is close to publication, had not been revealed to him. I took some comfort in the fact that he had seen my contribution to that collection, since I had sent it to him for his suggestions (without revealing its ultimate destination). That essay, “Treason and Parricide Among the Ancient Greeks” (with its appendix on “Tyranny”), should be drawn on as we discuss our play for today, Euripides’ Medea. The abundance of references in this tragedy to tyranny is a curious phenomenon, something that I do not recall having noticed before and that I should like to have discussed with Mr. Berns, my decades-long fellow-traveler in literature. It is appropriate that the Berns Festschrift is entitled, Companionship of Books.

I recalled, during the hours in Orchestra Hall, my association with Larry Berns. We met, in 1947, as fellow-Vincent House residents in the University of Chicago’s Burton-Judson Dormitories. Both of us had the privilege of serving overseas in the United States Army Air Corps. Our experiences together over the years included a challenging three-week archaeological tour of Greece and visits to Italy, France, Germany and England. I particularly recall two adventures in Italy. In Rome, we agreed, upon studying Michelangelo’s Moses, that we needed a higher vantage-point for a proper observation of that sculpture. The priest in that church, however, proved uncooperative. And in Pisa, we repeated the legendary experiment at the Leaning Tower with one of us climbing to the top carrying stones of different sizes while the other stayed below to keep the area clear and to listen for the impact of the dropped stones. Two pairs were dropped (when no police were in sight). One of the pairs dropped had a single impact-sound, while the other pair had two such sounds. We could then report to Leo Strauss, our teacher in Chicago, that the Issue of Modernity was still open.

Memorable, as well, was our visit to the United States Supreme Court, in December 1960, when I argued before that Tribunal. He thereafter recalled in print his recollections of that occasion. (See G. Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist [1971, 2005], pp. 362-65.) We also visited together our respective home towns (Newark, New Jersey and Carterville, Illinois). He was impressed by my high school principal, who had personally willed into existence a first-rate high school in a Southern Illinois town of only three thousand people. I, in turn, was impressed by his remarkable mother. And then there were, of course, our “political” differences over the years, with him starting out in college as the more “liberal” and me as the more “conservative.” I say “starting out,” for we both switched sides during our decades of supplying each other challenging materials. The last thing I sent him was a copy of the talk that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made at West Point last month. I considered particularly worthy of notice a Gates observation, “In my opinion, any future Defense Secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” The Berns response to this would have been instructive, especially if he drew on something about Roman realism from Machiavelli.

But those differences were far less important than what drew us together for decades, as each of us would wonder what the other would think of something that had been noticed. I have already been reminded of how much Larry Berns figured for me in routine activities:     when I passed this weekend a Chicago Jewish Star newspaper dispenser, I could deeply regret that I would no longer have to take a second copy to send to him. (I should admit that our respective spouses were rather critical about all the reading materials we supplied each other, year after year, however much my wife regarded him as a confidante, especially in dealing with a sometimes difficult husband.)


Our considerable academic collaboration over the years may have its most enduring expression in the translation of Plato’s Meno that we published in 2004. It is a dialogue we had worked on for years in the University’s Basic Program (the program where Mr. Berns did begin his teaching, thereafter recruiting me to join its Staff). His Classical Greek was far better than mine, which contributed to a remarkably reliable translation. (My own hand can more readily be seen in the sixty-four geometrical illustrations we appended to the translation, illustrations which, I have been told, a scholar plans to use in a Polish translation of the dialogue.)

During a 2001 visit by Mr. Berns to Chicago we spent hours (in a study room in a University of Chicago library) reading out loud (against the Greek text) our Meno translation, line by line. And we spontaneously stood up for the concluding lines, sensing that we had done something worthwhile, an assessement confirmed by several reviewers of our text.


Critical to our intensive collaboration was, of course, the profound influence of Leo Strauss.

Laurence Berns seems to me the student of our generation most intimately connected with Mr. Strauss. Thus, he may have been the only such student that Mr. Strauss could refer to by his first name. Mr. Berns wrote the Thomas Hobbes chapter in the Leo Strauss & Joseph Cropsey History of Political Philosophy. (Hobbes had been the subject of an important study early in the Strauss career.) Mr. Strauss thought highly of the Berns doctoral dissertation on Francis Bacon, a study that needs to be prepared for publication along with his meticulous translation of Aristotle’s Politics.  (I recall, with the Bacon dissertation, that hours-long walk we took one evening in the University of Chicago neighborhood during which I was “expected” to persuade him to submit immediately the considerable work already done and get his doctorate [which he did] rather than undertake major revisions that would have added several more years to the decade he had already spent as a University student.)

Leo Strauss had, as a young man, studied with Martin Heidegger in Germany. Laurence Berns, upon preparing to go to Germany to improve his German language skills, informed Mr. Strauss that he planned to attend some Heidegger lectures. He was told in response that, of course, he could do so since Heidegger was one of the greatest thinkers of the Twentieth Century, but he was also told by Mr. Strauss that no self-respecting Jew would ever shake the hand of a scholar who had collaborated the way he had done with the Nazis. (I myself have been so moved by the troubling Heidegger career as to consider him “the Macbeth of philosophy.”)

Germany proved vital to Laurence Berns’s development. It was there that he met (in a Hans G. Gagamer course at the University of Heidelberg) his future wife, a scholar whom he respected for her remarkable competence (as well as, of course, for her feminine charms). There came from this union a much-treasured daughter and, quite recently, a grandson who proved delightfully rejuvenating for his grandfather.


A St. John’s College colleague has told me this weekend that Laurence Berns had, in their last conversation, challenged the assessment some years ago by an intimate friend of Leo Strauss that Mr. Strauss was moving as he grew old toward Orthodoxy in Judaism. However this may have been, it seems to me appropriate to recall, as I close these remarks about a long-cherished colleague, the words which Leo Strauss used in concluding his remarks at the funeral of our fellow graduate student in 1961, addressing thereby the young man’s family with what he called “the traditional Jewish formula:”     “May God comfort you among the others who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.”

The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults

The University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

March 7, 2011


[[A sampling may be seen of the Laurence Berns translation of Aristotle’s Politics (Book I, chap. 1-7, 1252a1-1255b4) in George Anastaplo, ed., Liberty, Equality & Modern Constitutionalism: A Source Book (Newburyport, Massachusetts:  Focus Publishing/R. Pullins, 1999), Vol. One, pp. 215-21.]]


Appendix A

Obituary, The Annapolis Capital, March 6, 2011

Laurence Berns

BERNS, LAURENCE, 82, of Annapolis passed away March 3 of a sudden heart attack. Born March 15, 1928 in Newark, New Jersey, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in International Relations.

The great loves of his life were philosophy, political philosophy, and politics. Laurence taught at St. John’s College in Annapolis from 1960 to 1999 and stayed an active member of the college community during his retirement. He never stopped being a full-time student, in all areas of human knowledge. His enthusiasm and curiosity about learning, his openness to the world and its joys and problems, was unbounded. His sunny, warmhearted nature was a blessing for all those around him. Above and beyond his being a serious scholar, Laurence was a great storyteller, to his own as much as to his listeners’ delight. Not the least of his charms was a beautiful musical voice—he just loved to sing!

Immediately after graduating from high school in 1946, he enlisted in the military, and was a photographer at Kimpo Army Air Base in Korea. He was a member of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Annapolis. Predeceased by two of his brothers, he is survived by his wife of 45 years, Gisela, of Annapolis, his brother Philip of New Jersey, his daughter Anna, son-in-law Joel, and grandson Rory of Palo Alto, California, and many cousins, nieces, and nephews. There will be a graveside service at Kneseth Israel Cemetery in Annapolis at 10 a.m. Monday, March 7. For further information, contact Hardesty Funeral Home at 410-263-2222.

Appendix B

Publications by Laurence Berns

“Aristotle’s Poetics.” In Ancients and Moderns:   Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss. Edited by Joseph Cropsey. New York:   Basic Books, 1964.

“Thomas Hobbes.” In History of Political Philosophy. Edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. Chicago:   Rand McNally, 1963. 2nd ed., Chicago:   Rand McNally, 1972. 3rd ed., Chicago:     University of Chicago Press, 1987.

“Two Old Conservatives Discuss the Anastaplo Case.” Cornell Law Review 54 (1969): 920-26. Reprinted in Law and Philosophy: The Practice of Theory—Essays in Honor of George Anastaplo. Edited by John A. Murley, Robert L. Stone and William T. Braithwaite. 2 vols. Athens, Ohio:   Ohio University Press, 1992.

“Reasonable Politics and Technology.” The College (St. John’s College, Annapolis) 22, no. 3 (September, 1970): 1-3.

Review of Freedom of Choice by Yves Simon (New York, Fordham University Press, 1969). Review of Politics 32 (1971):   125-27. Expanded version, Revue de l’Université d’Ottawa 42 (January-March, 1972):   35-45.

Review of The Constitutionalist:   Notes on the First Amendment by George Anastaplo (Dallas, Tex.:   Southern Methodist University Press, 1971), Dallas Morning News (November 28, 1971), H6. Reprinted in Anastaplo, “Notes Toward an ‘Apologia Pro Vita Sua.’” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 10 (1982):   319-53; see 322-23. Emended and expended as Foreword to the 2004 edition of Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2005.

“Gratitude, Nature and Piety in King Lear.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 3 (1972-1973): 27-51.

“Leo Strauss—A Memorial.” The College (St. John’s College, Annapolis) 25, no. 4 (January, 1974): 4-5. Reprinted as “Leo Strauss 1899-1973.” Independent Journal of Philosophy 2 (1978): 1-3.

“Socratic and Non-Socratic Philospohy: A Note on Xenophon’s Memorabilia, 1.1.13-14.” Review of Metaphysics 28 (1974-1975): 85-88.

“Political Philosophy and the Right to Rebellion.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 5 (1975-1976): 309-15.

“Lincoln’s Perpetuation Speech.” In Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address and American Constitutionalism. Edited by Leo Paul de Alvarez. Irving, Tex.: University of Dallas Press, 1976.

“Rational Animal—Political Animal: Nature and Convention in Human Speech and Politics.” Review of Politicis 38 (April, 1976).: 177-189. Reprinted in Essays in Honor of Jacob Klein. Edited by Samuel Kutler. Annapolis, Md.: St. Jonh’s College Press, 1976.

“Francis Bacon and the Conquest of Nature.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 5 (1978): 1-26.

“Speculations on Liberal and Illiberal Politics.” Review of Politics 40 (1978): 231-54.

“Transcendence and Equivocation: Some Political, Theological and Philosophical Themes in Shakespeare.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker. Edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West. Columbia, S.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981. 2nd ed., Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2000.

“Spiritedness in Ethics and Politics: A Study in Aristotelian Psychology.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 12 (1984): 335-48.

“Further Aristotelian Ideas on Justice and Liberal Education.” Liberal Education 72 (Winter, 1986): 327-30

“Aristotle and the Moderns on Freedom and Equality.” In The Crisis of Liberal Democracy: A Straussian Perspective. Edited by Kenneth L. Deutsch and Walter Soffer. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1987.

“Leo Strauss and Mortimer Adler.” The Gadfly (St. Jonh’s College, Annapolis) 10, no. 23 (May 9, 1989): 8-10.

“The Prescientific World and Historicism: Some Reflections on Strauss, Heidegger and Husserl.” In Leo Strauss’s Thought: Toward a Critical Engagement. Edited by Alan Udoff. Boulder, Co.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1991.

“Humean Impressions:   A Note.” The Gadfly (St. John’s College, Annapolis) 12, no. 12 (Jan. 29, 1991): 5.

“The Relation Between Philosophy and Religion: Reflections on Leo Strauss’s Suggestion Concerning the Source and Sources of Modern Philosophy.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 19 (1991-1992): 43-60.

“Foreword” and “Xenophon’s Alcibiades and Pericles on the Question of Law, with Applications to the Polity of the United States.” In Law and Philosophy: The Practice of Theory—Essays in Honor of George Anastaplo. Edited by John A. Murley, Robert L. Stone and William T. Braithwaite. 2 vols. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1992.

“Aristotle and Adam Smith on Justice: Cooperation Between Ancients and Moderns?” Review of Metaphysics 48 (1994-1995): 71-90.

Review of Leon R. Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (New York: The Free Press, 1994). Review of Metaphysics 48 (1994-1995): 413-14

“Correcting the Record on Leo Strauss.” PS: Political Science and Politics 28 (1995): 659-60

Review of Kenneth Hart Green, Jew and Philosopher: The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss (Albany, N.Y. SUNY Press, 1993). Review of Metaphysics 49 (1995-1996): 660-61.

Comment on Kenneth Hart Green, Jew and Philosopher: The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1993), Jewish Political Studies Review 9, no. 3-4 (Fall 1997): 91-98.

“Leo Strauss at St. John’s College (Annapolis).” With Eva Brann. In Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime. Edited by Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littelfield, 1999.

“The Classicism of George Anastaplo.” Political Science Reviewer 26 (1997): 90-113.

“Our Political Situation: Good Government, Self-Government, and American Democracy.” In The Great Ideas Today, 1997, Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1998.

“Heidegger and Strauss: Temporality, Religion and Political Philosophy.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 27 (1999-2000): 99-104.

“Putting Things Back Together Again in Kant.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 28 (2000-2001): 201-18.

“Moral Reform in Measure for Measure.” St. John’s Review 46, number two (2002): 63-77.

Plato’s Meno. With George Anastaplo. Translation, Annotations and Geometrical Diagrams. Newburyport, Mass.: Focus Publishing / R. Pullins Co., 2004.

“Benjamin Franklin’s Biblical Parable on Toleration.” In Enlightening Revolutions: Essays in Honor of Ralph Lerner. Edited by Svetozar Minkov, with Stéphane Douard. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2006.

“Plato’s Meno and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.” In the Envisioned Life: Essays in Honor of Eva Brann. Edited by Peter Kalkavage and Eric Salem. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2007.

Publications Perhaps in Preparation

Aristotle’s Politics. Translation with Notes and Commentary.

The Human and Natural Philosophies of Francis Bacon. Revision of Dissertation (University of Chicago, 1957).

Politics, Nature, and Piety. Collected essays: five on Aristotle, others on Heidegger and Strauss, Kant, Adam Smith, King Lear, Bacon, Hobbes, Xenophon, and the relation between philosophy and religion.

“Dialectic, Virtue and Recollection in Plato’s Meno.” The Anastaplo Works of the Mind Lecture, University of Chicago, November 15, 2009. Revised for the Homecoming Lecture at St. Jonh’s College, Annapolis. September 24, 2010. This is to be published in the next issue of Interpretation:    A Journal of Political Philosophy.

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